Teaching the five Cynefin domains using physical exercises


Here at the Art of Hosting in Chicago working with 70 people fromthe restorative justice field and the early childhood education world.  Inspired by a design from Tenneson Woolf and an invitation from Teresa Posakony, my new friend Anamaria Accove and I hosted a lovely exploration of the Cynefin framework using movement and physical embodiment to help people understand the difference between the domains.  The exercise went this way:

We taped the framwork on the floor, which is the standard way I teach it.  Before we talked about it at all, we invited the group to divide into four groups and follow our instructions.

The first exercise was a simple challenge: to arrange the group by height.  There were different ways this was accomplished but everyone settled on a linear shape with the tallest at one end and the shortest at the other.

The second exercise was for people to arrange themselves by age and year of birth.  A complicated problem for sure, and there was a variety of good solutions that emerged.  Of course in order to do this you need a little analysis, both of the data and a good model fro representing it.  But having arranged themselves, each selection was accurate and useful.

In the third exercise we asked people to arrange themselves by place of origin.  This wasn’t a particularly complex task, but it did result in an experience of emergence.  Again it required conversation, story telling and some meaning making (like, from my mother’s womb?  From my hometown? From the place I left this morning?).  What emerged were several interesting ways of representing the data, but we honed in on one of the two maps.  By asking one or two people where they originated from we were able to predict where the rest of group was from with startling accuracy.  What emerged was a map of the United States that came with its own information and data.

For the fourth exercise we asked people to arrange themselves like five year old children at a birthday party right after the cake had been eaten.  Utter chaos.

Finally we posed a question from the realm of disorder.  We asked the group to arrange themselves by temperature.  “What?”  This really helped to show that disorder was not the same as chaos.  Disorder invites us to lean in and figure out what is going on before we see if this is a simple or complex task. In that sense it is the opposite of chaos, in that disorder itself is a container.  This is such an important domain to understand and to understand especially how we default to assuming how to solve problems without first defining the scope of what we are looking at.

After running this exercise we taught the Cynefin framework but naming the domains, explaining the cause and effect relationships and explaining the decision making schemes for each domain.  Many people reported that they understood it at a deeper and more practical level and especially in the domain of disorder which gets a short shrift in the wider world.  Folks that were familiar with the framework but who had not groked the concept of disorder got it this time!  That is partly down to me learning how to teach it better as well, by characterizing the disorder domain as one that present problems that stop us in our tracks and force us to say “WTF?”  WTF has now been translated by the group in this context as “Where’s the Family?” which is actually a pretty good strategy for dealing with disorder!






  1. That is an interesting approach. I imagine that it would be very useful, thanks. Thinking about it some more, I was wondering if a better task for the Complex domain would be to arrange themselves by ‘mood’. This may have similarities to ‘place of origin’ but with the added possibility of the mood of individuals changing as the mapping exercise progressed. Could this be an example of the co-evolution of the agent and the environment?

  2. Possibly. I was going for fairly simple exercises that would produce something emergent. The map was a really tangible example of this and we even tested it by using it to navigate.

    The mood one strikes me as interesting and would give the same effect possibly as the exercise where you ask people in a group to put themselves equidistant between two other people. This creates a dynamic and ever changing structure, but very much in the complicated domain (as all of the information you need to understand the system can be dsicerned with close attention and modelling). Arranging by mood would require continually sense making, which would be interesting but maybe a bit involved for this intro exercise.